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Twin Metals’ potential impacts: They’re not just on water quality

It is clear that sulfide mining would degrade an exceptional tract of public land that is vital to local, state and national constituents and stakeholders. Mining must not be implemented.

Bruce D. Anderson
To date much of the discussion concerning sulfide mining has revolved around potential effects on water quality. The following comments focus on social and terrestrial impacts that could occur if Twin Metals sulfide mining proceeds.

I acknowledge that I rely on copper in my electronics and vehicles. However, there are 20 existing copper mines in the United States and all occur in the arid west. None of the existing copper mines is found in a water-rich environment like northeastern Minnesota.

The EPA has identified hardrock mining as the nation’s top toxic producing industry. It concluded that since 1997 this industry accounted for 41 percent of all toxics reported in 2010, or 1.6 billion pounds.

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Viewing sulfide mining in context

When considering the potential impacts of sulfide mining on the environment, particularly on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), policymakers, managers and the public need to view such mining in the context of other ongoing impacts to our state’s wild and natural places. Wetland drainage, loss of grasslands (CRP), and deforestation continue unabated in western Minnesota; frack sand mining, deforestation and forest insects and disease threaten the state’s southeast and central areas; and invasive species and unmanaged motorized recreation erode wildland character throughout Minnesota.

Couple this with an expanding state population, which has increased from 3.4 million in 1960 to over 5.5 million in 2016, a 60 percent increase. A good metric in determining population density as it relates to open space is acres per person (APP). The state’s APP declined from 15 APP to 9.4 APP between 1960 and 2014. When considering the ratio of public land APP, there was approximately 3.4 APP in 1960 compared to 2.2 acres APP in 2014 — a 35 percent decline.

The disappearance of Minnesota’s wildlands has been drastic. There has been a 95 percent loss, and by 2035 unmodified wildlands are projected to decline by 98 percent if current trends continue. The extent of wildland loss in terms of APP has dropped from about 383 acres per person pre-settlement to 2.6 acres per person today. 

My experiences

I’ve lived and worked in two areas affected by mining and one area affected by oil and gas development. Although mining and oil and gas development are distinct activities, the socio/environmental impacts are similar.

While in the Black Hills I witnessed the development of a large open pit gold mine (Gilt Edge Mine). This open pit mine was moved forward through political pressure despite environmental risks. Today the Gilt Edge mine is an EPA Superfund site.

When working/living in Montana I was part of a federal team to analyze development of a large platinum mine (Stillwater Mine). This proposal had issues similar to Minnesota’s sulfide mining proposals, including wilderness, endangered species, water quality, and an active tourism industry. I witnessed the large influx of people, which increased traffic congestion and illegal motorized intrusions into the wilderness. The setting of the area completely changed. Moreover, while living in Red Lodge, Montana, I visited mine tailings from the old Crown Butte Mine near the Clarks Fork River headwaters. I recall the orange, iridescent color of the stream pollutants. This too was declared an EPA Superfund site.

The most discouraging impacts I witnessed occurred in the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. The entire social fabric and environmental setting were turned upside down. Over 500 oil/gas wells were developed on federal lands during my year tenure in the 1980s. The town I lived in tripled in size and public services were stretched thin. Entire drainages were altered. Toxic drilling chemicals and gases (hydrogen sulfide) were prevalent. Adverse impacts to wildlife including bighorn sheep, antelope, deer, golden eagles and prairie falcons were common. The cyclical boom/bust nature of energy development caused abandonment of public infrastructure projects, depressed housing markets, and undone environmental mitigation.

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Potential impacts

  • If sulfide mining occurs near the BWCA, the region’s remote setting and naturalness would be degraded. Noise generated from mining operations would impact solitude up to 10 miles away.
  • A population influx would create urban sprawl, increased un-managed motorized recreation, and increase the potential for invasive species establishment.
  • Impacts to wildlife could occur. It’s recognized that the Rainy Lake Watershed (RLW), including the Twin Metals lease area, is home to many of the state’s rare animals and plants. Despite representing 1 percent of the state’s land area, the RLW contains 16 percent of the state’s rare species occurrences.

Similarly, the distribution of rare features is disproportionate. Consider that 2 percent of the state’s Outstanding/High Bio-diversity and 8 percent of High Conservation Forest acres occur within the mineral lease area, which accounts for only .5 percent of the state’s land area.

A substantial income source for the Ely area is tourism. It’s a gateway to the surrounding wildlands. This would change with mining. Visitors seeking natural settings would go elsewhere; ecotourism jobs could be lost. Moreover, mining is a “boom and bust” industry subject to national and worldwide economic cycles.

It is clear that sulfide mining would degrade an exceptional tract of public land that is vital to local, state and national constituents and stakeholders. In order to protect, maintain and enhance these exceptional resource values, it’s essential that copper mining not be implemented.

Bruce D. Anderson, of Chisago City, is retired from the U.S. Forest Service (37 years) and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (4 years).

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